The concept of body image refers to what a person thinks and feels when they look at themselves in the mirror. Children – both boys and girls – begin forming their sense of body image at age 5.
Parents and other adults can have a hand in helping to shape these attitudes and feelings. Carmen Namenek, manager of community education at CHOC Children’s, offers five things parents, and all adults, can do to help children build and maintain good body images.
- Praise qualities about your children that go beyond appearance
Teach kids to value other characteristics that have nothing to do with their looks, Carmen says. Focus on character traits when offering praise: For example, say “I’m so proud of how kind and caring you are” or “Great job at working so hard at your homework.”
Related, Carmen recommends children keep a list of those character-related compliments. The next time they’re feeling down, they can refer to it and think about all their great qualities.
- Be a great role model for having a healthy body image
Because kids are so influenced by their parents’ actions and behaviors, it’s important that adults model a healthy body image. Parents shouldn’t let children hear them disparage their own looks or lament a physical characteristic. Kids learn by watching and hearing others, Carmen says.
“We need to make positive comments about ourselves,” she says. “It’s OK to dislike a body part but you can’t let that turn into hate.”
And if the disliked physical characteristic is something that can be changed, use that as an opportunity to bond with a child, Carmen recommends. For example, if a parent would like to lose weight, initiate evening walks with a child. Parents might drop a few pounds, but, even more valuable, they will bond closer with their child.
- Use the media to discuss body image and the definition of beauty.
Television shows, movies, cartoons, magazines and the Internet play a significant role in shaping children’s body image. Studies show that a person sees an estimated 5,260 “attractiveness messages” each year through just commercials.
Blocking children from media is unrealistic, but parents can use these channels to educate and bolster better body image, Carmen says.
Ask a child questions such as “Do you think images on television and movies are real?” or “Do the media portray all types of bodies or beauty?” Share facts with children to help them maintain proper perspective. For example, models weigh on average 23 percent less than non-models.
“These facts help children understand that bodies in the real world are more diverse and unique than those in the media,” Carmen says.
- Teach children that health and appearance are different
Carmen recommends that adults focus on making daily healthy choices and changing feelings, rather than on weight and size.
Children can also benefit from a basic genetics lesson: Teach them that some things can be changed, and others cannot, she says.
- Nurture their inner selves
Body image is linked to self-esteem, so help children feel good about themselves in all arenas, Carmen recommends.
Build self-esteem by participating in activities that help them feel good about themselves and others. This will help children feel more comfortable in their own skin.
Finally, Carmen cautions that if a child is obsessing over their appearance or taking extreme measures such as radical dieting or skipping meals, parents should consult with a pediatrician immediately. These children need emotional and physical help.
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